It’s All About Breaking Even Until…

Video Poker

Do you play video poker? I don’t, but I have friends who do. They find a machine that has greater than 100% payback (yes, there are some—they’re just hard to find) and then they grind that machine into oblivion for hours upon days upon weeks. Sometimes they’re satisfied with finding a machine that has very close to 100% payback and play that one. They pile up the comps, free slot tournaments, and various other benefits that make it worth their while.

Here’s the single thing I know about what they do and how they do it: the entire trick is to play perfect strategy for whatever game it is, and watch your bankroll go down down down.

Until you hit a royal flush.

You take a picture of the royal with your phone, wait for the attendant to come around and pay you, and smile that your bankroll has returned to its original value. Plus or minus a bit. Then you go back to grinding perfect VP strategy.

Real Poker

I got to thinking about that when a discussion broke out in a hand history group to which I belong. This group is hosted by Benton Blakeman, who’s a friend of mine. Benton’s a long-time Vegas pro (poker, not video poker) with a family to support, so I listen carefully to what he says.

Anyway, somebody in the group said, “This guy posits that you make all your money in no-limit hold’em in 3-bet pots. Do you think that’s true?” Benton replied,

“No. You make all your money flopping sets. The rest of the time you’re just trying to break even.”

Whoa. That’s a strong statement right there.

But then I thought about a session I played a few weeks ago. I had crushed the local 2/5 game for over 1,000, and wandered out into the California sunlight thinking I was one darn good poker player. Later that day I got to thinking about a specific hand I’d played. There was a $10 straddle, somebody opened to $40, couple of people called, and I called in the big blind with a pocket pair. I don’t even remember what pocket pair it was.

What I ​do​ remember is that I flopped a smallish set—bottom or middle set. I checked, the preflop raiser bet, got one caller. I check-raised, the raiser called, and the hitchhiker bailed out. The turn and river were whatever, I bet the turn, shoved the river, and got called twice. Turned over my set and it was plenty good. As I worked that hand backwards in my head, I realized that my ​profit​ on that hand was 1,100 and change. My profit for the session was a tad over 1,000.

Well then. It seems that that entire session was a matter of losing 100 for four hours, except for hitting a ​ royal flush​ set for 1,100. Maybe Benton is onto something.

Flopping Sets

So, there are two components to Benton’s advice: (a) flop sets, and (b) break even otherwise.

Let’s talk about flopping sets first. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to flop sets any better than the next guy.1 However, I do know a thing or two about sets:

  1. Even before Benton suggested they’re where you make all your wins in NLHE, I knew they were vital. To that point,

try to see flops with pocket pairs. While small sets get you broke in PLO​, they are absurdly profitable in NLHE—don’t be afraid to flop bottom set. 2. Make sure you are getting the right implied odds to flop your set. I like to use 10:1 in position, and 15:1 out of position. That is, if I’m acting after the preflop raiser, I want the effective stacks to have at least 10x what it’s costing me to call. If the raiser acts after me, I want to see 15x my call in his stack. That’s because it’s harder to get the money in when you’re out of position, so you need a bigger payoff if you do. 3. I’m a firm believer in a raise-or-fold strategy preflop. But if ever there was a time to consider limping in, this might be it. Specifically, if you have a 3-bet-happy table, you’d hate to open with a small pair, then have somebody drop a big 3-bet that blows out the other players and puts in you a marginal situation to call. It might be better to slip quietly into the pot and happily call one decent preflop raise. That builds enough of a pot so when you hit, you can aim for stacks. 4. When you do flop a set, don’t get cute. This is where you’re going to make your profit for the session, so don’t slow play it and spring a river-trap on the villain. From the moment you see that magical third of your rank pop up, ask yourself how you’re going to get the most money in the pot. If you’re out of position, your default should probably be a check-raise. If in position, think about raising before you think about just calling a bet. In short, ask yourself how you’re going to get stacks in.

Breaking Even

In a lot of ways, this is the hard part. It’s all the hard work of picking up a small number of pots here and there, maximizing those top-pair-top-kicker hands when they’re best, but not losing your stack when they’re not. It’s getting to showdown with your weaker “good” hands.

Importantly, it’s not frittering away chips with marginal and less-than-marginal hands. If you spend a few blinds here and a few blinds there trying to hit a miracle flop (“Jack-six suited is my lucky hand”) your real hands that hit hard won’t be able to undo the damage you’ve done to your stack. Breaking even means not bleeding chips.

The Big Takeaway

There’s a bit too much about sets, and ​far​ too much about “breaking even” to cover in one article, but I think you get the idea. Consider an experiment where you think of yourself as a kind of advanced video poker player—where you’re just trying to keep your stack level until you catch lightning in a bottle in the form of a flopped set.

Let me know how it goes.

1 My friend and fellow poker content creator Jaman Burton says he improves his chances by dealing out hands at home and ​not​ flopping sets. This tilts the odds in his favor when he gets to the casino. Feel free to give that a try.

Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at